Q: I frequently meet a man in a gay social organization to which we both belong, and this man, as they say, pushes all my buttons. He is friendly to me, which makes him all the more alluring, but it is clear that he has an active social world in which there is no place for me, apart from our common organization. Obviously, I am not the only person who sees how remarkable he is. Neither of us is likely to leave the organization any time soon, so I’m obliged to deal with my predicament for the foreseeable future. Is there anything more serious here than frustration at not having the relationship with him that I want? I’m sure I will get over this painful situation eventually but would definitely appreciate your insight on the subject to hasten my recovery.
A: I wonder if there is anyone reading this who hasn’t experienced what you’re going through. It’s always painful to long for what we can’t have, but unrequited romantic love is especially painful. And to have regular contact with the man you love and see that he doesn’t lust for you the way that you lust for him, and that his eyes don’t light up for you the way yours do for him, is a form of acute suffering. But the fact that it’s painful doesn’t in and of itself make it a “problem.” It may just be one of those situations in life which must be endured, and for which there is no “cure” except time.
One practice which can mitigate the suffering in the meantime is something I learned from studying Tibetan Buddhism. In this practice, you reflect on all the people in the world who are currently experiencing the same kind of difficulty you’re living with, whether it’s an illness, a loss, or a disappointment such as unrequited love. Then form the resolution to use your own pain as a springboard to become more compassionate toward all those who are in situations similar to yours. After you’ve done that, imagine yourself sending waves of compassion and loving kindness to every one of them. This exercise may sound hokey, but it is surprisingly powerful. I’ve used it myself on a number of occasions, and I find it a great antidote to self-pity. I also find it a useful way of using my suffering to connect me with others rather than to feel separated from them.
But your question “Is there anything more serious here than frustration at not having the relationship with him that I want?” is a good one, because unrequited love is one of those situations which is full of emotional pitfalls for many people. Here, too, I find Buddhist psychology helpful. The Buddhists have a word, papanca, which means “mental proliferation,” (although “mind fucking” also captures the meaning). It refers to the stories we tell ourselves about what we’re experiencing, which add additional, and unnecessary, layers of suffering to the unavoidable pain that we all experience. When it comes to unrequited love, it’s very common for the mind to work overtime in generating papanca.
If the object of our affection doesn’t return the interest, for instance, many people go immediately into self-denigration. Why doesn’t he love me? There must be something wrong with me. Maybe it’s that I’m not good looking enough, or interesting enough. Maybe it’s just that I’m not a lovable person. Maybe I’m just not the sort of person who ever gets what he wants. Maybe I’m just a loser.
Any kind of suffering can trigger a cascade of thoughts about why my suffering shows that I’m defective. I shouldn’t be hurting so much about this. If I were a stronger, healthier, more secure human being, I wouldn’t let things like this get to me. The fact that I’m in love with someone who doesn’t love me shows that I’m self-destructive, self-defeating, masochistic or neurotic – otherwise I’d pick someone who returned my feelings. And so on.
I know a man who fell deeply in love with a dorm mate in his freshman year of college. The other guy was mildly friendly, but not otherwise interested. Now – twenty years later – this man continues on an almost daily basis to pine away for the love that never was. Why did he do this to himself? Because, having been abandoned in early childhood by his drug addicted father, he had come to suspect that he was not the sort of person who could be loved by any man, and he took his first adult disappointment in love as confirmation of that grim belief. His problem wasn’t unrequited love, but what his mind did with it.
So examine what your mind is telling you about this situation and don’t believe everything it may be saying. Your recovery from this disappointment will be a lot faster if you can be alert and skeptical about any pessimistic or self-denigrating interpretations you may be assigning to your situation.